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UK migration policy: we need to talk about citizens

The family rules introduced by the UK government as part of its crusade to curb net migration are surreptitiously redefining the meaning of citizenship and the boundaries between the state and its subjects, says Nando Sigona.

There is nothing new about seeing immigration and immigrants used as scapegoats for popular anxiety or as a diversion from the economic crisis (see the significant following of Golden Dawn in Greece). It is even less surprising to see politicians mobilize electoral support around the moral panic surrounding new immigrant arrivals (see lately the terms and tone of the debate on potential new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria). Still, the new immigration family rules introduced last summer shed light on a less visible side of immigration policy and practice: the permeability and historically contingent nature of the boundaries between citizenship and non-citizenship and the concrete ways immigration rules produce and shape not only the position, entitlements and experiences of non-citizens in society, but also the very meaning of what citizenship is and of what being a citizen entails.

The conversation on migration seems to be mainly focused on the consequences of human mobility, polarised between those campaigning for migration and migrants’ rights on the one hand, and those concerned with the impact of migration on public services, social cohesion and security on the other.  Less attention is afforded to the impact of immigration governance on migrants and even less on citizens. There are some noticeable exceptions, as demonstrated by recent work carried out at the University of Oxford. Research on undocumented migrant children in the UK shows how, despite both international and British laws which guarantee children access to education and healthcare irrespective of their immigration status, increased demands on public authorities by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) are pushing children and families away from essential services, leaving them more vulnerable and isolated. Similarly, Bridget Anderson’s latest book examines how the ‘dangerous politics of immigration control’ shapes the relationship between Good Citizens, Failed Citizens and Non-Citizens.

UK citizens are becoming used to the gradual and pervasive penetration of UKBA into their hospitals, GP practices, universities, colleges and schools; the turning of public services into outposts of immigration enforcement. They are becoming used to being asked to present a valid visa or passport when applying for a job, or to sign a register used to assess whether they are a ‘bogus’ or genuine student when attending a lecture. These practices have become the norm for all, immigrants and citizens alike, and up to now they have faced relatively little opposition.

Initiatives such as the National Allegations Database, which encourages the public to act as UKBA informers through spying on their neighbours, or on anyone who they think, for whatever reason, might be residing illegally in the UK, have moved the bar even further, subcontracting an important task of immigration control to law-abiding citizens. Information collected via the database is to be processed by new privatized immigration officers working for Capita plc.

While this attempt to stretch immigration control well beyond the control of external borders into public services seems to be the dominant trend, there are also signs that this approach may turn out to be both politically and administratively unmanageable. The frequent scandals that have seen the UKBA and its sister agency UK Border Force accused repeatedly of poor efficacy and transparency, despite management reshuffles and various rounds of restructuring, highlight the limits of a bureaucratic apparatus that is overgrown through successive layers of legislation. These constant reforms have left behind a complex machinery, full of incongruences that make it not only extremely difficult to manage but also vulnerable to legal challenges from multiple sides.

There is nevertheless an element of novelty to the way the new family rules, almost as a side effect, intervene and interfere in one of the most intimate and private spheres of a citizen’s life. This raises important questions concerning what exactly it is that the government assesses when evaluating the impact of immigration policy, and how it defines (rather narrowly) the ‘main affected groups’ in a way that consciously leaves aside an analysis of the unequal impacts of its measures on citizens and citizenship.

The introduction of the new family policy has made family reunion for citizens and migrants with non-EU partners more difficult, and subject to a complex and time-consuming procedure which can take months to complete. This has obvious consequences for relationships, and particularly for children. The rules set a new minimum income threshold of £18,600 for bringing to the UK a spouse or partner, fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of non-EU nationality, with an even higher threshold depending on the number of dependent children. These measures are part of the UK government’s grand plan to curb net migration to ‘the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands’, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron. The use of net migration, that is the difference between in-migration and out-migration, as a compass of immigration policy is highly questionable and has been criticised on a number of grounds, not least because it relies on the level of emigration, an independent variable that is not directly or significantly affected by immigration policy.

There is a further aspect to consider. As Agnes Woolley has explained, the immigration rules do not impact all citizens in the same way. The analysis of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory clearly shows that some groups of citizens are affected significantly more than others, including the more than 40% of British people in employment who do not qualify due to their low income. Those who will not qualify are mainly women, young people in their twenties, or residents of Wales, Merseyside, North West England, and Yorkshire and Humberside. A look at the recently released Census data confirms that there are a very large number of UK citizens from a variety of social backgrounds who increasingly live in mixed status families who could be impacted by the new family rules. If we turn numbers into words, we could say that the government’s goal to control immigration and immigrants has become a vehicle for class politics, or, perhaps more crudely, that the citizenship rights of many Britons are being threatened by a policy designed to serve the interests and visions of a London-centric, ageing, male-dominated elite.

Families directly affected by the new rules are starting to speak out in an effort to create public interest and support. Stories are beginning to surface of families torn apart by the new rules, of young couples no longer able to live together, of children separated by one of their parents, of elderly family members left behind in order to comply with the new rules. Many of these stories are being collated in a new blog entitled BritCits, the name of which is in itself revealing, suggesting as it does an analysis of the devastating impact of this new immigration policy from the perspective not of would-be entrants, but of British citizens. The inefficiency of the system is also back under public scrutiny following the recent revelation of yet another backlog; victims here include wealthy British citizens kept away for months from their American wives because applications are sitting in boxes unopened. These stories challenge unspoken assumptions regarding who it is that is the target of immigration policy, and also who should feel the urge to oppose them. This realisation may ultimately succeed in creating a larger social movement against effects and side effects of current immigration policy which, in contrast to an immigration discourse that polarises immigrants and citizens, unites them in a common cause.


About the author

Nando Sigona is Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity. He is also Research Associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests include: irregular and child migration, governance and governmentality of forced migration in Europe, Roma politics and anti-Gypsyism, statelessness, and the intersection between migration, citizenship and belonging. He is one of the founding editors of Migration Studies, an international journal by Oxford University, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (OUP, 2014) and co-author of Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Undocumented Migrants (Pluto Press, 2014). He maintains a personal blog and is active on Twitter @nandosigona

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